We begin with a brief examination of the connection between man and man as a symbol for the sort of “universal process of nature”. As uncomfortable as it is to view man in such a way(as a symbol), especially when he is so capable of living as unnaturally as he pleases*, the fact remains that man, like any natural object or being, might serve as a symbol of that life-source, or energy, which apparently runs through all things, so long as it is part of a physical system. In the quote which follows, Carl Jung elucidates the connection between “solar” imagery and man, both experiencing increase and decline, both Apollinian and Dionysian.

“The finest of all symbols of the libido** is the human figure, conceived as a demon or a hero. Here the symbolism leaves the objective, material realm of astral and meteorological images and takes on human form, changing into a figure who passes from joy to sorrow, from sorrow to joy, and, like the sun, now stands high at the zenith and now is plunged into darkest night, only to rise again in new splendour[my italics]. Just as the sun, by its own motion and in accordance with its own law[my italics], climbs from morn till noon, crosses the meridian and goes its downward way towards evening, leaving its radiance behind it, and finally plunges into all-enveloping night, so man sets his course by unmutable laws, and his journey over, sinks into darkness, to rise again in his children and begin the cycle anew. The symbolic transition from sun to man is easily made…” (Carl Jung, Symbols of Transformation, P. 171)

The hero, like the sun, experiences increase and decrease, lighting up the world, but still returning to darkness. The heights which he experiences are only matched by the depths which he must endure. Jung’s description of man and the sun as symbol  exemplify not man himself, but man as he “ought to be”, a man who experiences the richness and fullness of life–a man like a hero. For example, let us look to see how the description of Gilgamesh by Sin-leqi-Unninni in the prologue of the epic, Gilgamesh.

“He had seen everything, had experienced all emotions, from exaltation to despair, had been granted a vision into the great mystery, the secret places, the primeval days before the Flood. He had journeyed to the edge of the world and made his way back, exhausted but whole[my italics].” (Sin-Leqi-Unninni, Gilgamesh, P.69. Mitchell tr.)

One sees above an apt description not simply of Gilgamesh, but of heroes in general in the Western Mythological tradition. To provide a more expansive view, connecting Gilgamesh to all the West, Vernant below gives a concise account of what makes a hero.

“Supernatural birth, expulsion from the human world[my italics], abandonment of the infant in the space of that other world symbolized by the immensity of the sea, survival and return among men after going through the ordeal whose normal outcome would have been death: Perseus’ biography from the very outset, even before the career of his exploits begins, contains all the ingredients needed to give the young man his properly “heroic” dimension.” (Jean-Pierre Vernant, Mortals and Immortals, P, 135)

First, Vernant adds the “otherworldly” or “divine” element of the hero (which Gilgamesh shares in being 2/3 divine), the survival of some impossible circumstance, like Herakles killing the two vipers as a child, and abandonment, like Philoctetes on Lemnos or Odysseus on Ogygia. There are several important aspects which unite the efforts of a hero and have him represent the “archetype of a hero”. The most important one, however, which perhaps creates the others, is that the hero appears out of time. Vernant continues.

“In literary tradition, the heroes are situated in a world and a period that are not quite that of Greece. They do not belong to the Iron Age. Above all, the heroes are a religious category that is both worship of the gods and funerary cults, and they can only be conceived of within the framework of civic religion.” (Ibid, 279)

In Hesiod’s Works and Days, Kronos first creates the race of Gold, and then after they pass away and become spirits of the earth, Zeus creates the race of silver, and then bronze, and then somewhere between bronze and the next men of iron, the heroes arise–without metal. Perhaps it is the case that they are not given a metal, because as Vernant suggests, they are necessarily men out of time, not in line with the manner of being or prevailing consciousness of their time. Is the hero then an archetype of transition indicating the change from one age to another– and if such an archetype were now constellated (activated or charged) in America, how would it look? Especially if one looks closely at Hesiod’s own description of these men do they appear all the odder:

“But when earth had covered this generation also, Zeus the son of Cronos made yet another, the fourth, upon the fruitful earth, which was nobler and more righteous, a god-like race of hero-men who are called demi-gods, the race before our own, throughout the boundless earth. Grim war and dread battle destroyed a part of them, some in the land of Cadmus at seven- gated Thebe when they fought for the flocks of Oedipus, and some, when it had brought them in ships over the great sea gulf to Troy for rich-haired Helen’s sake: there death’s end enshrouded a part of them. But to the others father Zeus the son of Cronos gave a living and an abode apart from men, and made them dwell at the ends of earth. And they live untouched by sorrow in the islands of the blessed along the shore of deep swirling Ocean, happy heroes for whom the grain-giving earth bears honey-sweet fruit flourishing thrice a year, far from the deathless gods, and Cronos rules over them; for the father of men and gods released him from his bonds. And these last equally have honour and glory.” (Hesiod, Works and Days, 156-169. H.G. White tr. Extracted from here.)

Not only is it the case that this is the first and only race of men who are “nobler” than the race before, but those who survive the great wars in Thebes and Troy (and their returns home) are given over to the isles of the blessed (much like the Elves, Frodo, et alia in Tolkien’s Return of the King), and interestingly, Kronos is freed from Tartarus and made ruler of these men. This seems odd: for one, Kronos is the god who first created the race of gold, the greatest race of mortal men, so these heroes are in their way equated with the mightiest most beloved men by the gods–who died as if “overcome by sleep”. But the race of men is also called theion, or god-like, and clearly, they are mortal, so they do not reflect the gods in being deathless (until taken to isle of the blessed), and as they endured war, it was also the case that they did endure suffering and sorrow while on earth, unlike the gods. What then was it that made them god-like?

The question above is answered by the fact that Kronos is placed above the men as their ruler. Kronos was overthrown precisely because he had become the “old-tired” dominant of the collective consciousness which results in the “zest–libido–[going] out of life”. If Kronos, though, was a deposed and fallen form of the “Old-King” or “outdated form of cultural consciousness”, why would he be placed above these men out of time? Precisely for this reason. Because the semi-divine (hemitheion) men partook of both divinity and humanity, mortality and immortality, so must their lives and places in history be duplex. On the one hand, they endure suffering in the world, and on the other they endure no suffering on the Isle of the blessed. They live for a finite amount of time as men in the world, and then forever after “live” as the ageless gods do on the blessed isle, remembered for all time in poetry and as a result of their distinct funerary rites which effectively apotheosize them.***But does this at all answer why Kronos is placed above them as ruler? We turn to Richard Tarnas who explains that Kronos represents, in his Saturnine aspect, a ruler not simply for a time, but himself “out of time” as well. He says that the following qualities are represented by Kronos/Saturn:

“…to experience difficulty, decline, deprivation, defect and deficit, defeat, failure, loss, alienation; the labor of existence, suffering, old age, death; the weight of the past, the workings of fate, character, karma, the consequences of past action, error and guilt, punishment, retribution, imprisonment…” (Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche, P. 91)

It is precisely because Kronos, in fighting against his own fate to be superceded by one of his own children, after himself usurping the throne of his father Uranus, has experienced both rising and declining in the celestial sphere that he is an apt ruler for those men who have also experienced the fullness and two-sided nature of life. Kronos rules because he has been both king and prisoner, upstart son and cast down ruler. He, more than any Titan or Olympian (Prometheus would be close), is a fitting ruler for those who know the duality of human existence, heroes, because he, even as a god, experienced such dualities of increase and decline himself. In experiencing both the temporal and changing, and in experiencing the timeless and immortal, both Kronos and the hero exist outside of time and place, together united in a place all their own.

It is all well and good that the hero might achieve his proper place amongst his fellows and ruled by an appropriately like-minded deity, but the question remains, if the hero is an archetype of transition and of change, how does it help current society, America, if he simply leaves the world and exists on the isles of the blessed? Is not the purpose of the Hero Archetype practical in nature–affecting and joining one time to the next by disposing of the tired and old dominant of the collective consciousness? Joseph Campbell provides us with the necessary context to answer this practical and timely question.

The return and reintegration with society, which is indispensable to the continuous circulation of spiritual energy into the world, and which, from the standpoint of the community, is the justification of the long retreat, the hero himself may find the most difficult requirement of all. For if he has won through, like the Buddha, to the profound repose of complete enlightenment, there is danger that the bliss of this experience may annihilate all recollection of, interest in, or hope for, the sorrows of the world; or else the problem of making known the way of illumination to people wrapped in economic problems may seem too great to solve.” (Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Pp. 36-37)

The hero must not only embody the qualities which Vernant discussed above (survival of situations which might lead others to death, expulsion from the world, abandonment), but he must also come back, and even when he does, like Plato’s mysterious person who escapes his chains in the cave, he or she may be castigated, punished, or flat-out ignored. If the hero then represents the archetype which rejuvenates and reconnects a culture with its roots, values, and meaning, even then he may suffer violence or “he may meet with such a blank misunderstanding and disregard from those whom he has come to help that his career may collapse.” (Ibid, P. 37). How, then, does the hero accomplish the task which both establishes him as a hero and frees a culture from the tyranny of its “old-king”? Carl Jung attempts an answer by elucidating the fact that a man, if he is to be a hero, must endure the coincidentia oppositorum, or that the apparent opposites of life: good and evil, beautiful and ugly, useful and useless, et alia must not be sided with and therefore lose their energic tension but endured as parts and poles along the same energic spectrum or whole.

“But if a man faced with a conflict of duties undertakes to deal with them absolutely on his own responsibility, and before a judge who sits in judgment on him day and night, he may well find himself in an isolated position. There is now an authentic secret in his life which cannot be discussed–if only because he is involved in an endless inner trial in which he is his own counsel and ruthless examiner, and no secular or spiritual judge can restore his easy sleep. If he were not already sick to death of the decisions of such judges, he would never have found himself in a conflict. For such a conflict always presupposes a higher sense of responsibility. It is this very quality which keeps its possessor from accepting the decision of a collectivity. In his case the court is transposed to the inner world where the verdict is pronounced behind closed doors.”

“Once this happens, the psyche of the individual acquires heightened importance. It is not only the seat of his well-known and socially defined ego; it is also the instrument for measuring what it is worth in and for itself. Nothing so promotes the growth of consciousness as this inner confrontation of opposites[my italics].” (Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, P. 345)

Therefore, if a man or a woman is capable of enduring the presence and existence of these opposites, and not simply siding with one aspect of his or her nature: goodness, economic value, rationalism, then is society bettered by his or her heightened consciousness–then is he or she representing the archetype of the hero–and society continues to be bettered by more and more individuals enduring the coincidentia–more than any social or political reform could ever hope to offer.

So, for life to re-enter society and one’s self, one must simply remove the impediments which prevent the free-flow of energy, so as in physics, so as in the psyche:

“Life, being an energic process, needs the opposites, for without opposition there is, as we know, no energy. Good and evil and simply the moral aspects of this natural polarity. The fact that we have to feel this polarity so excruciatingly makes human existence all the more complicated. Yet the suffering that necessarily attaches to life cannot be evaded. The tension of opposites that makes energy possible is a universal law, fittingly expressed in the yang and yin of Chinese philosophy…” (Jung, Psychology and Religion, P. 197)

*”But man is the unnatural animal, the rebel child of Nature, and more and more does he turn himself against the harsh and fitful hand that reared him.” (H.G. Wells, A Modern Utopia, Ch. 5)

**Libido simply means “energy” for Jung, not sexual energy like for Freud.

***”The monumental work of Erwin Rohde remains one of the most eloquent sources for our understanding the heros ‘hero’ as a very old and distinct concept of traditional Greek religion, requiring cult practices which were also distinct from those of the gods[my italics].” (Gregory Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans, Pp. 114-115)


2 thoughts on “America and The Archetype of the Hero: Timeless or Timely?

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